Debt—A Daily Decision
Sometimes you can be lucky enough to find someone who is willing to lend you money. Maybe that person does it with a pure motive—that is, he or she actually wants to help you out of a financial jam. But in most cases, people don’t lend you money out of the goodness of their hearts. They lend you money because they want to earn more (of your) money in return.
We should do all that we can to avoid debt. Of course, in certain circumstances— such as buying a house or a car, building a church, or getting an education—we may need to borrow money. But it must be done as wisely as possible, with the intent of getting out of the debt as soon as possible.
Yet, we must be careful. Spending money we don’t have is the gateway for God’s people to “make covetousness and love of earthly treasures the ruling traits of their character. As long as these traits rule, salvation and grace stand back.”—Ellen G. White, Early Writings, p. 267.
We are to improve our skills and abilities so that we can stay disciplined and do all that we can to avoid debt. This week, we will look at what the Bible says concerning debt.
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, March 17.
The prophets and Elisha were getting wood by the river Jordan when “the iron axhead fell into the water. ‘Oh no, my lord!’ [one of the prophets] cried out. ‘It was borrowed’ ” (2 Kings 6:5, NIV). The verb “to borrow” means using with permission something that belongs to another. This permission carries risk and responsibility. Borrowed money is no different from the borrowed ax, except that it can have more serious consequences if misused.
The only reason we borrow money is to spend it. The financial risk we take is in presuming that we have the ability to repay and that there will be no financial surprises in the future. Yet, the future is unknown to us (Eccles. 8:7); hence, borrowing money always entails a risk.
Deut. 28:44, 45
We may borrow money with the idea to use it wisely, but the temptation to spend what we have, even of borrowed money, can lead to some very difficult problems. Indeed, spending borrowed money allows many of us to live in ways that we can’t afford. Temptation to borrow and spend is the heartbeat of a consumer culture that affects the rich and poor. When tempted, we should seek God’s provision (1 Cor. 10:13), because borrowing can be a curse (Deut. 28:43–45).
Don’t start the bad habit of borrowing money. If you already have, pay it back as soon as possible. We must learn to spend wisely and be masters of God’s money and not be mastered by the world’s money instead.
Again, there are some situations in which we may need to borrow. But it must be done cautiously and with the intention of paying everything back as soon as we can.
“And Jacob gave Esau bread and stew of lentils; then he ate and drank, arose, and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright” (Gen. 25:34, NKJV). Esau was a rugged outdoorsman who followed his passions. When he smelled his brother’s stew, he wanted the lentils immediately, even though it was unlikely that he was dying from starvation. Controlled by his emotions and feelings, he allowed the pressure of the moment to overpower reasoning, and he traded his birthright for some instant gratification. When he wanted his birthright back, and “though he sought it diligently with tears” (Heb. 12:17, NKJV), he did not receive it.
In contrast, we have the example of Jesus. After a 40-day fast and near starvation, Jesus was tempted by Satan three times (Matt. 4:3–10). But Jesus saw the temptations for what they were, and even in His weakened condition He did not give in to gratification. Jesus lived His entire life denying the pleasures of sin and gratification, and by so doing He showed that we could have power over sin too. He did not trade away or lose His birthright, and He invites all to share in being joint heirs with Him (Rom. 8:17, Titus 3:7). We keep our birthright by following the example Jesus gave when tempted (1 Cor. 10:13).
The best this world can offer is to experience the here and now, because it cannot offer an experience in the hereafter. To live for yourself is the opposite of living for God.
The desire for instant gratification is symptomatic of an uncontrolled mind; it is an enemy of patience that undermines long-term goals, mocking and injuring accountability. To delay gratification is a learned principle; it is a life skill that helps us manage situations and pressures, especially the temptations that the world has to offer, such as borrowing money unwisely. This idea, however, is not popular in a world built on the indulgence of instant reward, quick fixes, and get-rich-quick schemes. Once we have experienced instant gratification, we are more likely to choose the short-term reward again, and then again, and again. Stewards of the gifts that God has given us must not fall into that trap.
“There is desirable treasure, and oil in the dwelling of the wise, but a foolish man squanders it” (Prov. 21:20, NKJV). This text contrasts the stewardship of economic responsibility with luxurious and wasteful management. Foolish people make no plans to live within their means. They greedily spend wealth at their disposal, even borrowed wealth, feeling that financial wisdom or frugal living is a hardship, like an unwanted diet. Yet, even when we need to borrow money, such as for a house, we must do it with careful consideration and the realization that we need to live within our means.
The wealthy can live within their means out of their wealth. Their problem is that they always are worrying about their wealth and how to keep it. When people have very little and live from paycheck to paycheck, they worry about sustaining life, not wealth. Still, the Bible gives counsel on living within our means, regardless of how much we have. Paul recommends what we might consider extreme simplicity: “But if we have food and clothing [could include housing], we will be content with that” (1 Tim. 6:8, NIV). Paul doesn’t consider earthly possessions all that important, because for him, living in Christ is enough (Phil. 1:21).
We should think of our means not as income but as resources that we have a responsibility to manage. A budget is the method we should use to accomplish this task. Planning a budget is a learned skill that needs to be studied thoughtfully. Disciplined practice and effort are needed to be successful in managing a balanced financial plan (Prov. 14:15). If we make the commitment to succeed in our financial stewardship plan, we will be able to avoid embarrassing financial mistakes.
If you are having a problem with money management, set up a budget. It doesn’t have to be complicated. It can be as simple as totaling all your expenditures for a few months and then averaging in your monthly expenses. The key is to live within your means, no matter what, and to do all that is possible to avoid debt.
It’s just common sense to avoid debt as much as you can. Scripture discourages us from cosigning other people’s debts, as well (Prov. 17:18, 22:26). Debt leverages the future and obligates us to submit to its demands from our position of financial weakness. It is a smooth elixir that Christians find difficult to decline and manage. Debt may not be immoral, but it does not strengthen our spiritual life.
“There must be a strict regard to economy or a heavy debt will be incurred. Keep within bounds. Shun the incurring of debt as you would shun leprosy.”—Ellen G. White, Counsels on Stewardship, p. 272.
Debt can become financial bondage that makes us a “servant to the lender” (Prov. 22:7). Because debt is so intertwined with the fabric of our economic world, we think of it as simply the norm. After all, whole nations exist on debt; why shouldn’t individuals do the same thing? This is a wrong attitude to have.
“Make a solemn covenant with God that by His blessing you will pay your debts and then owe no man anything if you live on porridge and bread. It is so easy in preparing your table to throw out of your pocket twenty-five cents for extras. Take care of the pennies, and the dollars will take care of themselves. It is the mites here and the mites there that are spent for this, that, and the other, that soon run up into dollars. Deny self at least while you are walled in with debts. . . . Do not falter, be discouraged, or turn back. Deny your taste, deny the indulgence of appetite, save your pence and pay your debts. Work them off as fast as possible. When you can stand forth a free man again, owing no man anything, you will have achieved a great victory.”—Ellen G. White, Counsels on Stewardship, p. 257.
Debt is a weak foundation for Christians to stand on. It can do damage to our spiritual experience and impact our ability to fund God’s work. It robs us of our ability to give to others with confidence, and it steals opportunities for God’s blessings.
Ants labor to save provisions for the winter (Prov. 6:6–8). We are wise to consider their ways when we save money routinely for a specific purpose. The point in saving is to have resources available for our living expenses or needs as opposed to wasting or hoarding what we earn. Managing money requires wisdom, budgeting, and discipline. If all we do is save for ourselves, we are pilfering God’s possessions instead of stewarding them.
“Money needlessly spent is a double loss. Not only is it gone, but its potential for earnings is also gone. Had we set it aside, it could have been multiplying on earth through savings or in heaven through giving. . . . Saving is a discipline that develops authority over money. Instead of letting money take us wherever our whims incline, we take control.” —Randy C. Alcorn, Money, Possessions and Eternity (Carol Stream, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers, 2003), p. 328.
Stewards save for family needs and invest in heaven when managing God’s assets. It is not about how much one possesses but about having a biblical management plan in place, whatever your financial situation happens to be. Saving for family needs should be done wisely. To minimize any loss, spread out the risk (Eccles. 11:1, 2). Working at such minimization prior to your wants (Prov. 24:27) and then seeking qualified advice from others (Prov. 15:22) are two successful tools in this model. As needs are met and wealth grows, we must “remember the Lord your God, for it is [H]e who gives you the ability to produce wealth” (Deut. 8:18, NIV).
The most secure investment model for God’s steward is to invest in “ ‘the kingdom of heaven’ ” (Matt. 13:44). There are no recessions, risks, thieves, or market downturns. It’s like having a purse or wallet that will never wear out (Luke 12:33). Accepting Christ opens the account, and returning tithe and giving offerings are deposits. That is to say, however much we need to take care of our worldly and earthly things here, such as paying the bills, we always must keep our focus on eternal truths.
Further Thought: Every natural ability, skill, or gift comes from God, whether we were born genetically with it, influenced and educated by our environment, or both. The important part of the equation is what we do with the abilities and skills we have. God expects stewards to learn to be masters of their skills and abilities through education and practical experience (Eccles. 10:10).
Bezalel was filled “with the Spirit of God, in wisdom and understanding, in knowledge and all manner of workmanship” (Exod. 35:31, NKJV). He and Aholiab (Exod. 35:34) had the ability to teach others their craft.
We can learn to be better stewards and specifically to eliminate debt while living in a materialistic world. We always should be developing our skills through reading, seminars, and formal education (whenever possible), and ultimately practice what we have learned. Growing our skills enables us to give our best to God and to be good stewards.
The parable of the talents indicates that each servant received talents “ ‘according to his own ability’ ” (Matt. 25:15, NKJV). Two servants doubled their amounts; the third hid his in the ground. We should always strive to improve what we have, but burying the talent did not show any ability or skill. Managing money, getting out of debt, cultivating discipline, and practical experience develop competencies that are blessed by God. To become successful and good at something, we must repeat it again and again.
“As the lessons of the Bible are wrought into the daily life, they have a deep and lasting influence upon the character. These lessons Timothy learned and practiced. He had no specially brilliant talents, but his work was valuable because he used his God-given abilities in the Master’s service.”—Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 205.